EP Review: Mae Estes – ‘Before the Record’

I started this year fairly strong with album reviews, but I’ve slacked off over the past month. So, let’s make up for lost time, with five album reviews. I had originally planned to post this as one big roundup, but certain reviews ran longer than expected, so I’ll be slowly doling them out over the course of this week. The candidates in question are: Mae Estes, Amanda Fields, Robbie Fulks, Ruston Kelly, and Jake Worthington, in that order. Slight spoiler alert: Two of these albums are ones I’d count as the first ones of the year I really love. Even without scores to guide us anymore, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess which ones they are by the reviews, so … onward!

We’re not quite in uncharted territory here with this artist. I’ve actually covered Mae Estes’ music here before and loved my introduction to her work, though I am late to the punch in finally talking about her debut EP, appropriately titled to (hopefully) suggest a proper album is on the way. She plays pretty well to that Lainey Wilson-esque, pop-country middle ground with an old-school sensibility in the delivery and production – I’d maybe slot it closer to the mid-to-late 2000s over the ‘90s, but it’s a solid combination that favors this EP well.

Of course, if there’s one reason at all to discuss this project, it’s for the song “Thinkin’ Bout Cheatin’,” which has quickly become one of my favorite songs of the year in all of its tempered, even-keeled, slow-burning glory. It’s not quite how I’d describe the actual sentiment, however, which is far more direct in how confessional it can feel between Estes’ character and her partner as she examines neglect and a general malaise that segues into the titular phrase, even if she hasn’t actually crossed that line yet. It flips the script on a well-worn concept in a really interesting way, where it’s not so much about wanting to cheat so much as wanting a greater level of commitment that might have once been there but has since petered out.

Elsewhere, I’d say that same generally blunt framing is echoed throughout most of the content, albeit to lesser results at points. I don’t know if it’s just an issue of this project leaning a bit too conventional in its melodic or compositional construction at points or what, but it does seem to lack a stronger identity and focus overall, even if I’d say Estes is an interesting enough writer to bolster many of these well-worn sentiments. I love the smoked-out tones of “Run” playing to a familiar drifting, rambling mentality in the conceit, where Estes is able to turn inward to see it more as a crutch keeping her from something more rather than a title to own. And that’s echoed further through “Town Left Me,” where a return home isn’t filled with happy memories, but rather a realized loss of youth spent in a town that’s moved on without her, which is mostly a good thing as she herself has gone out into the world to make something of herself, but can still put into perspective just how much has changed over the years – for her and everyone around her.

If I had to nitpick, I’d say the production can sometimes lean a little much on slicker polish that doesn’t always flatter its more organic presentation, and there are moments of greater bluster in “I Quit Smokin’” and “Die In a Bar” that feel overproduced and oversold, the former track a pre-kiss-off track that mostly still works due to Estes’ direct delivery, and the latter a clunky dud that feels out of place on an otherwise short but introspective project. Still, this is a mostly solid start – and well-worth hopping onboard for when that debut album eventually does come.

  • Favorite tracks: “Thinkin’ Bout Cheatin,” “Run,” “Town Left Me”
  • Least favorite track: “Die In a Bar”

Stream the album.

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